We crested the ridge overlooking the reedbed, finding before us an open area beloved by basking adders in spring, now being heated by an autumnal sun shining from a sky of purest blue across which a pair of birds arrowed hither and thither. Hobbies: young birds, not yet fully enthused with the urge to move south to winter in tropical Africa, instead feasting on the abundant end of season dragonflies zipping about in the marshlands of the RSPB reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk. They were stocking up, instinctively preparing for that inevitable long migration that would become an imperative as soon as this food supply runs out and the mild November spell dissipated.
With shelter from the stiff south-easterly being afforded by the screen of woodland, we watched these mercurial aerial masters for an hour as they hawked to the fro across the clearing. They would lazily tack into the breeze, using their laser vision to locate an unfortunate dragonfly that, once targeted, stood no chance of escape. The birds would half close their wings, stooping at great speed towards their prey, and with a momentary brake and upward swing of a taloned foot, clutch the oblivious insect from the air. More often than not we could then watch the falcons leisurely dismember their prize, stalling into the air currents just 20 metres above our heads. With viciously sharp beaks they nibbled small chunks of succulent dragonfly, starting with the head and moving bite by bite through the thorax and abdomen. It felt at times that we could even hear the crunch as beak sliced through the exoskeletal shell of the insects, a fancy surely drowned by our frantically clicking cameras.
Once finished with the juicy parts, the indigestible wings that had been neatly nipped off, would be discarded to drift invisibly down to Earth. The only thing remaining of a creature that itself had been a master of flight and a small miracle of nature.
For a short while these two swift flying falcons were joined by another member of their tribe, a Peregrine, possibly one of the pair that nest at Sizewell just along the coast. This larger, bulkier bird had no designs on dragonflies, instead it was eyeing up potential larger meals in the form of waders or wildfowl. It hung around for a few minutes before floating off across the reed bed. An even larger raptor, a Common Buzzard then appeared, hanging into the breeze to scrutinise the open heath beyond the ridge for carrion, or perhaps an unwary rabbit. It too soon drifted from view, once more leaving us with the pair of hobbies as sport.
A short walk brought us to another small clearing where we had seen the birds concentrate their attentions. Sure enough the Hobbies soon appeared, treating us to flybys so close we could hear the wind whistling through the flight feathers. Exhilarating. Goodness knows how many dragonflies this pair dispatched during the course of the day, hundreds if I’m any judge. But there seemed to be an unlimited supply of these common darters, that themselves were feasting on smaller insects tempted forth by the unseasonal warmth. Worlds within worlds, the never-ending circle of life. In a few days the Hobbies will depart, unseen by any human. They will hunt as they move through southern Europe, fly by night and day across the Sahara, traverse the rain forests of central Africa to spend our winter hunting termites and Swallows across southern countries of that great continent. Will these birds survive that epic journey? The odds are stacked against them; they will have to endure massive flying distances, adverse weather, hunger, and most other dangers faced by migrating birds, although their small size, speed, agility and high hunting habits will minimize encounters with the gun. With luck, they will return next spring, older and wiser to once again grace the wide skies of eastern England. Then they will provide great pleasure for many people, including me, who even now cannot stop myself from excitedly shouting ‘Hobby!’ every time I see one.
There are more stories about Hobbies and other birds of prey in my book Naturally Connected. You can read reviews here, and purchase a copy by clicking the link in the sidebar.